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En Five Acts,
BY WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.
PRINTED FROM THE ACTING COPY, WITH REMARKS,
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL,
To which are added,
A DESCRIPTION OF THE COSTUME, -CAST OF THE CHARACTERS,
King John, KING JOHN is founded on an old play, entituled, “ The Trouble. some Raigne of John, King of England, with the Discoverie of King Richard Cordelion's base Son, vulgarly named the Bustard Fawconbridge: also, the Death of King John at Swinstead-Abbey. Imprinted at London, for Sampson Clarke, 1591." Doctor Farmer conjectures that Rowley was the author of this piece; but Malone, with greater reason, assigns it to Marlowe. A subsequent edition, printed in 1611, has the letters W. Sh. inserted in the titlepage; but this is evidently the trick of a fraudulent bookseller, to foist it on the public as the genuine production of Shakspeare. But, as Pope justly remarks, the acknowledged play of Shakspeare is entirely different, and infinitely superior to it.
The hero of this tragedy belongs to a period of British history that can never be forgotten-the wresting of Magna Charta from a treacherous and cruel tyrant, and thereby confirming the rights and Jiberties of the English nation. Whether, in this bold achievement, the barons had in view, independent of their own immediate interests, the welfare of fature generations, it is not our purpose to inquire. Magna Charta is unquestionably the most valuable legacy that a rude and barbarous age ever bequeathed to posterity.
The plot of King John is from the English historians : on this foundation Shakspeare bas raised a superstructure of great variety and beauty. If the towering majesty that distinguishes some of his grander productions be not always discernible in this, there are certain parts that bear fall evidence of the master's hand : and terror and pity, two of the most powerful attributes of tragedy, are excited in no ordinary degree by the unrelenting cruelty of John, and the maternal sorrows of Lady Constance.
The portrait of King John is maintained with historical truth. He has all the ferocity of Richard, without any of his bravery-cruel, fickle, and treacherous--irrresolute, save in the commission of eviland then pursuing his dark purposes without pity or remorse ; for, in the scene with Hubert, where he reproaches his minion with the death of young Arthur, and impatiently exclaims
“ It is the curse of kings, to be attended
By slaves, that take their humours for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life"it is not compunction for the deed, but dread of the consequences, that wring from hi those passionate expressions. The incursions of France, with a powerful army into his dominions--the unexpected death of his mother-the desertion of his most attached courtiershave broken down bis spirit: added to these disasters, his superstitious fears are awakened by signs and wonders equally mysterious and alarming :
My lord, they say five moons were seen to-night:
Old men, and beldams, in the streets
In the valn hope of appeasing the wrath of man and the still vainer one, of heaven-he becomes reconciled with the Romish church; and, if the authority of history may be relied on, falls by the treachery of one of that communion, into whose arms he had thrown himself for pardon and protection.
There is no character in the writings of Shakspeare that bears stronger evidence of his peculiar manner than the Bastard Faulcon. bridge. He is a singular compound of heroism, levity, and-if his accommodating himself to the spirit of the times deserve so harsh a term-servility. He is, in truth, a soldier of fortune; acknowledge ing no law but that of honour, which, in a military sense, has somewhat of an equivocal signification. He compromises his own interest, and his mother's fame, for the proud distinction of being esteemed the base-born son of the Lion-hearted Richard; and enlists himself under the banners of a tyrannical usorper, for the vaunteď display of personal prowess against the injured and unprotected. Yet, with
all These blemishes, Shakspeare has painted bim in such bewitching colours-he has given him such nobleness of spirit--so much candour and frankness—such exquisite powers of wit and raillery-that his very errors are turned to good acconnt, and, like the irregu. larities of Falstaf, form the most seductive parts of bis character. To reconcile such seeming incongruities, is one of the many triumphs of Shakspeare. He knew that character consists not of one, but of various humours; and to blend them skilfully, without violating nature or probability, was an art that he left for the study and emulation of all future dramatists.
But the great charm of this play, is the Lady Constance: a character conceived with Shakspeare's profoundest art, and finished with his utmost skill. Every feeling of her bosom-every emotion of joy or sorrow-have their origin in maternal tenderness. In that allpowerful passion every thing is centered : her anxious solicitudeher bitter reproaches-her phrenzy-her đespair. Can indignation and contempt borrow stronger terms than her reply to Austria :
“ O Lyinoges I O Austria l thou dost shame
That bloody spoil. Thou slave, thou wretch, thou coward :
And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs." Where is sorrow depicted with greater pathos, than her distraction for the death of Arthur; and grief unutterable and past consolation, never produced an image more solemn and majestic than the following:
" To me, and to the state of my great grief,
Here I and sorrow sit Here is my throne-bid kings come bow to it.” The belief that those whom we have loved, and have been beloved by, on earth, shall meet, and recognise each other in a happier state of ex. Istence-a belief, glorious for the consolation that it affords, and per. fectly consistent with our ideas of immortality--is thus pathetically alluded to by Lady Constance, in her reply to Cardinal Pandulph :
" O, father cardinal, I have heard you say